By Fortune Onyiorah
This is the second of two essays about Nigeria. You can read the first one here.
This last summer I traveled to Nigeria for the first time in nine years. I made this trip with my father who is from Nigeria. Prior to leaving, I had anticipated writing a story about my experiences with religion while we were there. But it both was and wasn’t that easy. I didn’t have an assignment or a specific story to investigate, but I have spent the last 4.5 years studying religion and I wanted to see what it was like to be in Nigeria thinking about everything I had learned. In the end, I did not have to go and find religion – religion would come and find me. It greeted me at the airport, waved to me on street corners, and reminded me of its presence in so many casual conversations. I spent most of my time in the south of the country, travelling to Lagos, Enugu, and Ogidi, all cities where most of the residents are Christian. In the three weeks I was there, I grew increasingly surprised by how boundless and explicit the presence of religion is in the everyday Nigerian life I saw. It had a freedom that was not as conspicuous in the “secular’” United States. Here, I want to recount a few particular encounters before concluding with a bit of final reflection on the trip.
Vignette 1: As I stepped off the air-conditioned plane and into the sweltering heat of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria my only goal was to get through security as smoothly as possible. But when I reached the first immigration checkpoint, the border agent asked me a question I should have anticipated but didn’t see coming. “Where is your Yellow Card?” She was referring to the small, medical passport-like folded paper issued by the World Health Organization where immunizations are documented and signed by a physician. I knew exactly what she was talking about and exactly where I had left it – in the ‘important documents’ drawer at my home in Miami. “I don’t have them with me.” “What do you want to do?” She looked at me expectantly and I looked around for an answer, taking notice of a PSA poster behind her that said “Help end corruption.” “I don’t know,” I said. She frowned in disapproving way a Nigerian auntie would if you told her you were considering not going to university. Suddenly, as if she has just come up with an idea, her face relaxed and the words rolled expertly from her mouth. “Bless me,” she said. Unsure of what she meant, I asked her to repeat herself. “Bless me,” she repeated. Still acclimating to Nigerian English, I took her words quite literally and made the sign of the cross in front of me as if I was praying for her. “No, no, bless me!” This time, she was more enthusiastic, her words even more emphasized and I looked to my father for help. He understood what she meant and with a sigh and noticeable hesitation asked me if I had $10. He winced when I handed her $20, we were short on cash and wanted to conserve our local currency – she really had been blessed. And with no further hesitation, she let us through.
Vignette 2: Somewhere during the 500-mile car ride from Lagos to Enugu, I found myself stranded at a gas station called Rainoil. Our driver, hired by a family friend, apparently we were out of both gas and money. There were attendants filling cars and motorcycles with gas and shuffling money around. All I could do was wait and listen to the music playing from the station’s speakers. Surprised to hear song by 50 Cent and Justin Timberlake from the early 2000s, it almost felt like I was home. “A redeemer I know,” I heard a Nigerian woman sing through the speakers. “He lives!” The transition from secular to religious was abrupt, and a place as unsuspecting place as a gas station it, felt disjointed. It is important to note that no one else seemed to be visibly affected by this, and when I asked my father about it he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s normal.”
Vignette 3: Every night from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. a designated member of the community would come outside and beat an ogene, a type of gong used in traditional Igbo music, every hour on the hour. They would strike the ogene very quickly at first to announce that they would be giving the time, pausing before hitting it more slowly, the number of times they hit it corresponding to the time of night. It was now 5:04 a.m. Despite the mosquitos and the power going out in the middle of the night, I was finally able to fall asleep. An acapella recording of “Amazing Grace” started to play over a loudspeaker, eventually accompanied by church bells and a horn, filling the empty streets with sound. It happened every night in Enugu, always around 5 a.m., a religious alarm clock to start the day after the job of the ogene player was done. I later learned the number 5 is thought to symbolize God’s grace. In the Book of Exodus, God gives Moses two stone tablets on which he transcribes the 10 Commandments. There are two sets of five – the first five Commandments related to our relationship with God, the last five our relationship with other humans.
Vignette 4: On a mission to get a SIM card for a local cell phone, I stopped by an Etisalat kiosk a few days in a row to resolve an ongoing technical issue. It was a small mobile office, the size of a campervan, parked on the side of a gas station where only one employee worked at a time. On the first day, the employee and I had a friendly conversation that would seem more like an interview to someone who was unfamiliar with the culture. He was a middle-aged man and as my elder, it would have been rude to avoid his questions or speak too much without being spoken to. Even in formal places of business, in Nigeria, the customer is not always right. My American accent was obvious and my appearance screamed ‘foreigner’, so I inevitably was asked where I was from. Throughout the conversation, I explained that I am from the U.S., that my father is from Ogidi, and that I had just graduated from university. “Well-done,” he said in reference to the latter and told me he had a friend that lived in “Jersey.” As I had expected, America had a certain reputation in Nigeria, one of immorality and sin that separated Americans from God and salvation. This impression became clearer the last time I went to the kiosk and talked to the same employee. It was early in the afternoon on a Wednesday. He took a look at the three rings I wear on my fingers, none of which are on the ring finger of my left hand. “Are you married?” “No, I am not.” He set up the SIM card, typing a number into his computer and writing down some information. “Did you go to church this morning?” I was tempted to say that no, in fact I did not do anything this morning because I slept in and that I was never planning on going back to that church just down the street. I had gone to church there on the Sunday prior, in a traditional Nigerian outfit with a scarf to cover my hair. It was so hot, the church was packed, the fans hanging from the ceiling were totally overworked. And in an effort to be both as diplomatic and as honest as possible, I will mention that since hygiene practices are different and things like deodorant are considered a luxury for many people, there was an overwhelming combination of body odors inside that made me running out the door 20 minutes into the service and depositing onto the ground all the American cereal I had eaten earlier that morning. By the looks some people gave me, it was obvious they had seen this as extremely disgraceful to do on church grounds. “No, I didn’t go this morning, but I will go to service later today,” I lied. Only half satisfied with my answer, he nodded and began to play a Nigerian gospel song on his phone, singing along as he continued to work on my phone. He looked at me again. “Do you have any other gods?” I was taken aback by the forwardness of his question, but I knew I immediately had to reply with the correct answer. “No.”
Vignette 5: Feeling the effects of internet withdrawal due to the non-existent Wi-Fi at home, I found myself at an internet café. I was wearing jeans, a tank top, a long and thin scarf draped over my shoulders for modesty, and my natural hair. I had been surprised to find out that while the natural hair movement was gaining traction among the African diaspora in the United States and elsewhere, it remained extremely unpopular on the African continent. Thought of as unrestrained, natural hair has the reputation of making a woman look unkempt, dirty, and unbeautiful. The young man who worked at the internet café and had set me up with a laptop asked if that is normally the way I do my hair, simply parted on the side with one side twisted behind my ear. After explicitly expressing that he did not like it, he suggested I “coil it” in a popular African style that involved adding artificial hair. Sometime later, after I had stopped sweating and he eventually pointed the fan at me, I got cold. Taking the scarf from where I had placed it on my lap, I laid it over my head so that it framed my face and wrapped it around my shoulders like a kind of blanket. I figured I had killed two birds with one stone, now my natural hair could not long be scrutinized and I was not as cold. The young man once again walked up to me. “You look like a Muslim,” he said. It was not a compliment, but a warning. In the Christian south, it is dangerous to walk around as a Muslim.
Vignette 6: Talking about President Trump was inevitable, even all the way across the Atlantic Ocean on the African continent. Many young Nigerians expressed admiration for him in one way or another, admitting that though they didn’t know too much about the election, they hadn’t liked Hillary Clinton and were glad he won. In many conversations I laid out why many people supported him, why many people didn’t, and why he is an extremely controversial figure in American politics. They told me they liked how candid he was when he spoke and that he said he is a Christian while Clinton had made no such claim. “Do you think he is really a Christian?” I asked one person in particular. He is the son of a family friend and was very interested in learning more about American politics including the electoral college. He acknowledged that it was possible for someone to claim to be a Christian when they are not, and perhaps that could be the case for Donald Trump. But I found one large piece of the puzzle missing in their understanding of the United States: racism. While there are religious and ethnic conflicts in Nigeria, nothing can compare to the structural intricacies of racism as they function in the United States currently. I had only spoken to Igbos who mainly live in the southeast of the country in what is colloquially known as Igboland. “Everyone is black here. We don’t have racism,” he told me. It is hard to explain what racism is to someone who has never experienced it, especially when their skin is as dark as mine. “It doesn’t make sense that a racist can be a Christian then,” he said.
The mixing of religiously (Christian) charged words into secular language and seemingly secular spaces is not specific to Nigeria. I was taken aback by the clarity with which religion is connected to the mundane, but upon my return to the United States it became clear that we are far from separating the two here either. In addition to the common words we are aware have religious origins and use in all kinds of non-religious ways (sin, salvation, gospel, confession, etc.), there are other instances where religious roots and connotations have been almost completely concealed, but persist nonetheless. Take, for example, the series of natural and human-made disasters and current complex political climate that have many describing our time in apocalyptic terms. The entertainment industries have taken these worst fears, packaged them as games, music, and films, and sold them back to us. It is no secret that Christianese is quite widespread in the U.S. and has influenced our national identity and government from its inception, but there is a tendency to think of this subtle talk of religion in the public sphere as more progressive than the example of Nigeria. That somehow, they are stuck in or unwilling to advance beyond an antiquated state of religiosity, while we have moved into a more sophisticated, post-religious or secular, era. The fact of the matter is that the undercurrent of Christianity is still in our lexicon, sensibilities, and identities, possibly to the same degree as it is in Nigeria. Coming back to the US, I have found myself thinking that there is a merit to the Nigerian Christian straightforwardness. It makes me think of a discussion I had with my father years ago where I came to the same conclusion. We were talking about political corruption in the U.S, and he laughed and said, “At least in Nigeria, you know your vote doesn’t count.” I believe our smoke and mirrors version can prove to be just as, if not more, dangerous.
Fortune Onyiorah is a Master’s student at NYU’s Religious Studies Program. She is currently writing a thesis on the subject of intersectionality in the Black diaspora.